Author

Ben Southwood

Ben Southwood has 19 articles published.

Rök, Islington

in Restaurants by

My two biggest cooking obsessions at the moment are fermentation and wood smoking. So it’s no coincidence then, that I found myself in Rök’s second location (the original is in Shoreditch), where almost everything on the menu is either smoked or pickled. Even one of the beers they offer is somehow imbued with a strong woodsmoke flavour.

The Danish feel extends past the cooking techniques: the decor is resolutely stripped-down Nordic, and the ingredients listed on the menu at least feel like the sorts of game and berries you might find in a cold Northern forest. I don’t know enough to tell you whether they really are.


We were encouraged to start with pickles—we didn’t need much encouragement—and sourdough with butter. The sourdough was clearly grilled over copious smoke, because every blackened chewy bite was deeply smoky, like the smell in your clothes after a long day standing by a charcoal grill. Even better was the extremely generous dense ball of nori butter, giving every bite a luxurious savoury glutamate flavour.

According to our waiter the pickles were traditionally fermented over seven days with only the natural bacteria found on the veg, salt, and sugar. This worked better for one batch than the other. The fennel was fantastic: slightly sweet, sharp and zingy from the acid the process produces, crunchy, and with the sometimes-overpowering anise flavour toned down to a floral herby air. But the cucumber (and gin) variety seemed very lightly pickled: not nearly sour and sharp enough. Nice crisp bits of cucumber are no bad thing, but a let down in comparison.

For starters proper I opted for the Scotch egg, a rare menu item with no apparent Scandi influences: deep fried nduja, a spreadable Calabrian sausage, wrapped around a quail’s egg, and served with dijon mustard mayonnaise. I’m pretty sure the meat wasn’t entirely nduja, or was at least a homemade take on it, since it was far less powerfully spicy and fudgey, but it did give more contrast than regular sausage. On top of a perfectly-runny egg yolk and the mayo lubricant—fresh and sweet rather than cloying—it reminded me how satisfying this little treat can be.


I like nearly all foods, but I really hate liver, so I can’t tell you how the other starter was—crispbread with caraway or nigella seeds and an extremely light, airy and spreadable pate of duck heart and liver, topped with chives and blackberry jam—but my companion said it was fabulous.


However I can tell you that the first main, wood pigeon breast reverse seared over smoke and served with crispy quinoa, a sort of baba ganoush, and a sweet sticky jus, was exactly what I was hoping this sort of place would sell. The pigeon had a solid bite, despite being extremely easy to cut, and the smoking was so well balanced that you never felt overwhelmed—even though you were essentially eating smoke with smoke.

The other main, mutton shoulder with butterbean puree, was less good. It was a generous, lean slab, presented like a steak, and while some of the elements were impressive, it didn’t really come together. Ordering slow cooked mutton shoulder I expected a pull-apart tender mass, but instead it was a firm chunk, with very little of the wood flavour that made the other dishes so beguiling. It seemed like a little too much tenderness had departed, and this wasn’t made up for by the lovely browned exterior. Which isn’t to say we didn’t mop up the entire plate.


The bone marrow mash with garlic oil also wasn’t quite what we were expecting. The folks at Rök most certainly know how to do a good puree, so it was a surprise that their “mash” was more of a baked potato endeavour, with lots of textural variety. This is by no means bad, but not at all what we thought we had ordered. What’s more, compared to the best versions I’ve had (or made!) this one was notably lacking in bone marrow. So, an enjoyable dose of garlicky-fatty potato, but not one that hit the precise spot we had in mind.

At this point (£42/head including drinks and service) we were extremely full, and although the whiskey-roasted peach with creme fraiche and frosted almonds was calling to us, we knew we couldn’t manage it. We promised we’d be back, and since it’s about five minutes walk from my house, I’m certain we will.

Rating: One medal.

London’s 21 Best Restaurants

in Restaurants by

There are endless “best restaurant in London” lists, but in our (Sam Bowman’s & Ben Southwood’s) view nearly all of them are rubbish. They’re too expensive and tend to focus on things other than food like service, ambience and image. These things are all important, but with Straight Up London, we have tried to create a guide to where a normal person should eat because the food tastes good for the price you pay. That doesn’t mean they’re all cheap, but the ones that aren’t are really, truly worth it. There are lots of places we recommend, and far more that we don’t recommend, but here are the places we adore and return to time after time. This, in no particular order, is our list of the absolute creme de la creme, the must-visit places London has to offer, and why we keep going back to them.

1. Som Saa, Spitalfields

 

Som Saa’s Thai food is outstanding, as good or better than most of the best food in Thailand with the punchy flavours that make Thai food so good. The deep fried whole sea bass, piled high with herbs and toasted rice, is a joy to pick apart with your hands, and the rest of the menu is updated frequently. Not every dish works, but that’s a testament to the constant experimentation and innovation that goes on in the kitchen, which explains why Som Saa is still at the top of its game. Even the cocktails are good – the Dragon’s Milk, made with sticky rice rum and coconut cream, is one of the best I’ve had anywhere.—SB

2. Bleecker Street, Victoria

 

Everybody likes hamburgers. Bleecker make easily the best burgers in town, even when ridiculous council restrictions stop them offering their signature Bleecker black, where the two unbelievably juicy patties sandwich a slab of soft Clonakilty black pudding. There may well be some burger, somewhere, that is even better, but I find it hard to believe. I have eaten dozens and yet I am still thinking, writing this, of how I can somehow engineer getting one at some point today. They’re that good.—BS

3. Silk Road, Camberwell

 

Nowhere else in London is like Silk Road – an unassuming, dingy-looking place from the outside, Silk Road is a family-run restaurant specialising in food from the Xinjiang province of China, where central Asian and Muslim influences make the food totally unlike the Cantonese that most of us are used to. Chili, cumin and salt are the key flavours here, best shown off in the lamb skewers with molten cubes of fat and meat cooked over hot coals. The hand-pulled noodles are excellent, as are the ‘home style’ cabbage and aubergine dishes that bring rich meatiness to otherwise-boring vegetables. Best of all are the prices, which are low enough to let you experiment without too much danger, and especially the £2.60 Tsingtao beers – an offer I just can’t refuse.—SB

4. Smokestak, Shoreditch

 

Barbecue in London has never really taken off. Yes, you can eat solid, decent smoked meat from one of Bodeans’s efficiently-distributed outlets. But the upper end of the market has struggled: Shotgun closed down and Pitt Cue decided to stop offering the low and slow experiments that made them such a success initially. So Smokestak is one of a kind, offering both glorious staples like slices of juicy brisket and genius innovations like smoked girolles on dripping-drenched toast. The sheer depth of their cooking talent means they even do well when they try their hand at zingy, fresh raw fish dishes and baked potatoes slathered in rarebit.—BS

5. Blacklock, Soho

 

The number one request we get is to recommend a meat place that isn’t insanely expensive. I always say Blacklock and every single time I get a text afterwards saying it was amazing. Not only is it the best place in London to get a steak, it is also the best place to get a pork or lamb chop. What’s more, you can get all of these things at the same time for £20, which is before you even consider the dripping trencher—a slab of focaccia-esque bread on which they pile all of the chops. There is almost literally nothing better than bread heavy with the juices of wood-grilled meat. I won’t be satisfied until there is a Blacklock in every neighbourhood of the UK.—BS

6. Good Friend Chicken, Soho

 

There’s not much more to say than this: Good Friend chicken, located just beside Leicester Square, will sell you a frisbee-sized piece of chicken breast, hammered flat, breaded and deep fried, for £6. The popcorn chicken – which really just increases the surface area at the expense of less moist, juicy chicken – is good too, and a steal at £3 a bag. They’ll also shake your choice of flavour powders on top to give an extra little kick – I have been at least a dozen times and still haven’t tried all the different combinations, but right now Thai flavouring plus salt and pepper is my favourite. The chili plus numbing sichuan pepper is a favourite, too.—SB

7. Santana Grill, Victoria

 

Mexican food still isn’t really a Thing in London, as indicated by the fact that clearly the best place around is a street food stall in Westminster, of all places, that is only open on weekday lunchtimes. Yes, you can get a peerless burrito with familiar stuff like cochinita pibil. But it is in the rare or off-menu offerings that Santana really excels: chilorio—pork confited in chile and lard served with pickled onions, smoked chicken tacos, or, best of all, the “bronut”. The bronut is a genius innovation where a regular jam doughnut is sliced open and filled with pulled brisket. It sounded like a bad idea to me at first, but that was until I tasted it.—BS

8. Kanada-Ya, Soho

 

Until I went to Kanada-Ya, I didn’t really understand why everyone was so het up about ramen. It’s just noodle soup, I thought. Now I understand what the fuss is all about: unbelievably creamy and strongly-flavoured pork broth, alkaline noodles with some bouncy al dente bite, slices of tender and meaty pork, and all the other accoutrements that balance each other perfectly. What’s more, ramen is a paradigmatic example, like pizza, of a food it just doesn’t make sense to ever make at home—it only makes sense at scale. It’s literally impossible to make a bowl of ramen nearly as good as Kanada-Ya offer for a price even approaching the generous £10.50 they’ll give you one for.—BS

9. A Wong, Victoria

 

Where Silk Road is a homely soul food restaurant offering big bold flavours and generous portions for a pittance, A Wong is a delicate high end specialist trying to push the boundaries and hone down classics into works of art. At lunch they offer only dim sum with whimsical designs—the fried rabbit dumpling is an orange and green carrot, and the sweet duck yolk dessert could be mistaken for a satsuma. At dinner, they have dishes from across China: crispy chilli beef, sweet and sour chicken, fish fragrant aubergine, and tea eggs whose yolk you will cut up and burst into a waiting nest of filo. In every case gloop is refined to cutting sweetness, grease to soothing fat and stodge to firm savoury satisfyingness. It shows you why these dishes spread so much in the first place.—BS

10. Kricket, Soho

 

The words “small plates” usually make my heart sink. Too little food shared between too many people, like butter spread over too much bread. But Kricket makes it work, using the opportunity to innovate with wonderful Indian dishes that, if you could only try one, would make you and your friends all jealous of each other’s dishes all night. I regularly find myself craving the bhel puri – a street snack of puffed rice and vegetables mixed with chutney and yoghurt – and the tandoori monkfish was one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had.—SB

11. The Dairy, Clapham

Modern European tasting menus can be great, but they can also be prissy, pretentious and a bit staid. Plus, they are always incredibly expensive. I would recommend The Dairy over any of the pricier higher-end tablecloth meals I have been to, as good as they were—it exemplifies what this sort of cuisine can be. Every dish is a surprising and exciting delight, and you hope again and again that you’ve miscounted and they’re going to bring you an extra course you forgot about. The best dish I had here was a truffled brie on toast with honey, but nearly everything manages to combine a new experience with easy deliciousness. What’s more, the seven course tasting menu is still only £48.—BS

12. Coal Rooms, Peckham

 

One of the newest restaurants on this list, the Coal Rooms occupies the old ticket office at Peckham Rye train station, with one of the rooms turned into a giant charcoal fire pit for roasting meat that, if you’re lucky, you can be seated around. The menu changes frequently and usually features ingredients and combinations I’ve never seen anywhere else – goat belly char siu, beef brisket Russian salad (has to be tried – so much better than it sounds), and the “Peckham Fatboy”, a giant potato croquette covered with melted raclette cheese and mayonnaise. Don’t be too distracted by the wackier-sounding dishes on offer – the grilled meat is superb too, and usually comes in the form of one enormous chop to share. It sounds strange, but make sure you check out the bathrooms – they’ve turned the old station bathrooms into a glorious palace, unlike any I’ve ever seen.—SB

13. Knife, Clapham

 

Perhaps we shouldn’t, when reviewing a steak restaurant with access to the most sought-after beef in the country, home in on Yorkshire puddings. But the fact that Knife gift you a large and entirely unheralded plate of Yorkshires inbetween your starters and main course highlights exactly why it’s such a nice place to eat. Yes, the beef is fantastic, yes the bread is hot from the oven and fancy little rolls rather than the omnipresent sourdough slices, yes there is wonderful gravy, and yes their sides are almost universally great. But it’s the little things like the unprompted doggy swan made out of aluminium foil for my precious leftover food that make me want to go back all the time, even just to hang out there.—BS

14. KOI Ramen, Brixton

 

If Kanada-ya is my head’s favourite ramen, KOI is my heart’s. I couldn’t believe that this tiny stall in Pop Brixton could make such a rich tonkotsu broth when I first tried it (and loved it so much that I ordered an entire bowl, straight after the pizza that was supposed to be my dinner). And I still can’t believe it now that it’s expanded to Tooting and Brick Lane and kept that high standard up. It’s a near-perfect bowl of fatty meaty goodness, and for only £6.50 it feels like I’m getting away with daylight robbery every time.—SB

15. Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting

 

What makes Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting’s best Sri Lankan restaurant, so good? It’s not the dry fried spicy mutton or the creamy, spicy aubergine curry, or even the chunky £1 mutton rolls. It’s not even the Paneer or Chicken “65”, flourescent pink nuggets of crispy fried protein that I can’t help but wolf down as soon as they arrive at the table. It’s because I know I can rely on it when I want to show off to my friends what really makes me tick, food-wise – affordable, interesting, fun and above all delicious food that you just can’t get anywhere else.—SB

16. Hélène Darroze at the Connaught

 

Of all the restaurants on the list, this is the fanciest and the priciest. If you go for dinner, it’s going to be at least £100 for food, and the cheapest wine on the menu is around £50 a bottle—it goes far, far higher. But sometimes you get what you pay for, not just in exquisite service and an incredibly beautiful old world dining room. Their chicken consomme tasted like an entire chicken compressed into a tiny, amazingly clear little dose of broth. Of course, nothing I had there will still be on the menu, but their range of skill—from confit chicken leg “tacos” to palate-cleansing apple soups means that I trust them to do anything well.—BS

17. Umut 2000, Dalston

 

There are hundreds of shiny metal charcoal grills in London, all offering an ostensibly similar menu of meat skewers with meze and flatbreads. Very few of them are places where you can’t get a decent meal for a decent price. But Umut 2000 (apparently Umut is a Turkish first name meaning hope) is the decentest of the lot. For £30 you can get a truly ginormous plate of chicken and lamb of various types, with unlimited warm tangy bread, and a huge plate of meze. Despite some very credible attempts, I have never managed to finish this between two, or even three, and despite the sheer quantity I have never encountered a single dry, tough, or bland piece of meat.—BS

18. Chick ‘n’ Sours, Haggerston

 

For something as simple as fried chicken it’s amazingly difficult to get right. Everywhere either overcooks it to a dry husk, tries to dress it up some flavourless meat with “fancy” flavourings and sides, or, worst and most common of all, gives you something swimming in grease that resembles something like what you’d get at a Morley’s at 2 o’clock in the morning. Not Chick ‘n’ Sours, though. I don’t know how they do it, but their chicken is not greasy at all, it’s just succulent and moist and actually tastes of something by itself. The dips are unintrusive – though I maintain that their St Agur blue cheese and buttermilk dip is one of the best things to have with chicken and chips, anywhere – and unusual sides like fish fragrant aubergine, pickled watermelon and kimchi nachos make every part of the meal a pleasure. In my experience the Haggerston branch is considerably better than the Covent Garden one, though, including when the Haggerston people did a residency in Brixton, so consider this an endorsement of that one only.—SB

19. Smoke & Salt, Brixton

 

Smoke and Salt’s “concept” – emphasising traditional techniques in things like curing and pickling – might sound faddish, but don’t let that put you off. This little place, occupying a little shipping container in Pop Brixton, is a testament to what a few talented chefs can do with discipline and a willingness to take risks with classic ingredients. Most dishes are far more than the sum of their parts – crispy new potatoes with gorgonzola, chimichurri and beef could hardly be bad, but somehow they make it shine, and make you wish that every other fried potato dish was just like it. Charred coley was cooked to perfection, a perfect example of how to cook fish without letting it become dry or textureless. The food is inexpensive and the menu changes seasonally, and while not every dish works, you’ll prefer Smoke and Salt’s noble failures to most restaurants’ successes.—SB

20. Lahore Karahi, Tooting

Two Indian-subcontinent restaurants within five minutes of each other on Tooting High Street might seem like overkill. But Lahore Karahi’s curries are the perfect compliment to Apollo Banana Leaf’s more unconventional dishes, and my favourite place for “traditional” Indo-Pakistani food in London. Grilled meats, like the fenugreek and chicken seekh kebab or the lamb chops, explode with flavour, and the house curries are simply far, far better than their equivalents at other curry houses. It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, and to dine in it’s most definitely unglamorous – but it’s also the best curry in London I’ve had.—SB

21. Peckham Bazaar, Peckham

 

Think of “balkan” food and you’ll probably either think of stodgy Greek stuff like moussaka or, worse, huge slabs of overcooked meat and boiled vegetables, Serbian-style. That’s unfair, and nothing will shatter that prejudice like a trip to Peckham Bazaar. If you go in the spring or summer, you’ll likely get something like grilled marinated octopus (non-rubbery, naturally) and prawns, or halibut kebabs, alongside courgette fritters. Go in the autumn or winter and slow-roasted meats will be on offer. The team here are true masters of their craft, creating new dishes daily according to what’s fresh and delicious, showing off obscure spices and vegetables from the Eastern Mediterranean and cooking their ingredients to perfection. Not only have I never had a bad meal here, I’ve never had a bad dish here.—SB

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Victoria Park Market, Hackney

in Restaurants by

The problem with going out for restaurants is that once you’ve paid for drinks, service, and a few courses you’ve usually spent £50. That’s a fair amount of money for almost anyone. But one thing London has done increasingly well in the five or so years I’ve been living in and around the centre is street food, and street food markets, where lots of vendors gang together and you can sometimes eat well for under £10.

Oftentimes these trucks and stalls will find themselves building enough hype and popularity to eventually open a proper restaurant—like how the Meatwagon turned into MeatMission, MeatLiquor and MeatMarket. They will expand their menus, serve you drinks, charge you service, and so on, but there is something very enjoyable about the raggedy streamlined simplification you get with a good honest food cart.

Last Sunday I went to the Sunday market in Victoria Park (a lovely walk down the canal) and I was surprised just how many great options they have, almost none of which I’d heard of, despite how voraciously I consume info about new popups, stalls, and openings. I ate solid fried chicken tenders, a surprisingly good take on a burger, and was forced out of a sheer fullness to miss out on several other options I would happily have tried any other day.

This is a restaurant review blog, and while I will extend that to street traders, I don’t think other vendors count. So I’ll just mention as an aside that I also bought some incredible chorizo & morcilla, and perhaps the best balsamic vinegar I’ve ever tasted.

Mexican Fried Chicken

I think possibly this stall wants for a more googleable name, but their food offering is already excellent. The good: bone-dry, super rock-hard-crispy coating around juicy, tender (clearly brined) chicken tenders, and you get a solid pile for £8. What’s more, it’s drizzled in chipotle mayo (smoky, savoury and slightly sweet) and sprinkled in chilli powder.

The okay but not amazing: the pico de gallo side lacked a little bit of freshness and zingyness; it was a bit flat. And more than that, it was just hard to combine with either the (decent) skin-on fries that sat under the chicken, or the chicken pieces itself. I think if you were going to have smaller pieces in a taco or a bun or something it’d make sense, but it was pointless in this form. Sadly they’d run out of guac (they were extremely popular while we were there) so we didn’t get to try that.

Rating: One medal.

The Patate

I tried The Patate out of pure curiosity, and thought it was a high risk idea. What they do is slow cook boeuf bourgignon, presumably the day before, and bring it along in a giant Le Creuset. When you want a “burger” they press it into something vaguely resembling a patty, grill it up so the sides are browned, cover it in a fat slab or two of cheese (in our case Raclette, but they also offer Camembert and a blue cheese), and serve it in a brioche bun.

When it comes to hamburgers I am a purist. Yes, you can experiment, but 99% of the time your experiment is going to turn out much worse than simply serving a piece of fatty beef mince with American cheese and some pickles. In fact, many of the London burger joints with the most airs and graces fall, in my mind, short of what you can get at McDonalds or Shake Shack—not to mention the really off-the-wall attempts in fancy restaurants.

But I was really surprised not just at how good this version is, but how much it actually tastes like a regular hamburger despite all the translated differences. Deeply beefy, with a mild cheese made for melting that spreads its lubrication and flavour around, and a no-frills mayo-based sauce. Very good stuff.

Their chips were even better, deeply imbued with seasoning to a degree that puts many other attempts to shame, and once again served with a generous covering of melted Raclette (if you enjoy cheese pulls then this is for you). It may not look like that much food, but on reflection it shouldn’t have shocked me so much that something this fat and protein dense was so filling.

Rating: One medal.

Maybe I was just lucky with my choices, but based on the reliability of my gut for judging culinary books by their covers, I’d say that Victoria Park Market offers even greater riches that those I sampled. Highly recommended—I will be back myself very soon.

Review: Zelman Meats, St. Paul’s

in Restaurants by

Why is it so hard for restaurants to expand? So often do I have a meal at the second or third branch of a chain and find it lacklustre or not up to the standards I built up in my mind. And yesterday’s meal at Zelman Meats in St. Paul’s, the fourth branch of the proto-chain, was yet another case where the latest outpost of a restaurant brand did not impress me.

First, I’ll be clear that I really like and endorse what the whole group around Zelman is doing. I’ve never been to Goodman, and given that Knife in Clapham has the same hard-to-get meat supplier and costs half the price, I probably never will go, but it seems like what you want from a high-end steakhouse. I loved Rex & Mariano and when it was cruelly taken from us, I was a fan of its replacement, the original Zelman Meats in Soho. London needs more steak restaurants that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Basically, this restaurant group has its heart in the right place, and often delivers the goods.

And if Zelman Meats’s city branch was a cheap and cheerful Flat Iron affair, I’d probably be recommending it heartily. But if you’re going to spend at least £100 on dinner and drinks between two, you expect something special, at least if you’re me, and special is what Zelman didn’t deliver.

Look, maybe tempura does technically include any type of batter, I am no expert, but what I am expecting when I am offered tempura prawns is the gloriously light-coloured and light-textured batter familiar to all who have had it once. This was more like beer batter. Beer-battered prawns are a perfectly good thing, although these were slightly overcooked, but it is always frustrating when you don’t get what you expect.

As usual, the “holy fuck” mayo was basically just orange mayo, and I would have preferred that the lime flavour was in there, as wetting the batter with the lime segments sacrifices some of its crunch, and never gives you the distribution of flavour as you’re hoping for.

The burrata was a bit better. Smaller than the gigantic lumps you’re used to, but cheaper too, and that’s probably an overall better trade. I’d say it was considerably less wet and creamy, and therefore more like regular mozzarella than I’ve had before, but it did the job. The only real problem was a severe lack of the promised pesto (you can barely see it in the picture)—just a smearing underneath. Give us a bit more and let us decide if we want it all!

The chips ranged from excellent to completely undercooked. As ever, the parmesan and black truffle topping is a great idea, but I had an unshakeable sense that it was less truffly than I remembered. Obviously in a dish like this I don’t expect big thick shavings onto my plate—I’m only paying £8.50—but this had a great truffle smell without much of a discernible truffle taste. Maybe it was the end of a jar.

On the other hand, both sauces—béarnaise and chimichurri—were great. The chimichurri was a bit different to what I am used to (mainly because it was blended) but I found myself dipping and dipping till it was all gone.

But I’ve gone all this time without talking about what you came for, the steak. Now the good is that you buy per 100g—chateaubriand is £9.50/100g, and picanha is £6.50. That above is 300g of each, which is about enough for two people.

The steak was not bad. But we paid nearly £50; for that, it needed to be excellent—it needed to be worth five flat iron steaks from Flat Iron! And it just wasn’t.

Firstly, it was cooked inconsistently. There were big veins of grey “gradient” in the chateaubriand (left) around the nice medium rare parts, and the two end pieces were grey, tough, and grainy. Even if you are committed to grilling your steak from start to finish, there is no need for this, and if you are willing to cook the middle and the outside separately you can get perfect end to end medium rare every time. I can do it myself!

And secondly, it lacked flavour. Yes, we had sauces, but good steak tastes really good on its own. Chateaubriand is £25/kg (vs Zelman’s £95/kg) in Turner & George, the best butcher near me, and tastes really beefy. Obviously I do not object to restaurants charging more for food—they prepare it for me—but they are not adding anything close to £70 of value. Or they weren’t yesterday.

And so I left Zelman having had some decent, adequate stuff, but spending £42 a head for two courses without so much as a sip of booze. That’s not big bucks but it’s still a decent chunk of change for a not at all extravagant lunch! To go back to Knife, my bill there was just a little more and I drank a bottle of wine, ate three courses, snacks, bread, and much more. So yes, I was more than a little disappointed.

Rating: No medals.

Review: Pique-Nique, Bermondsey

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Note: Pique-Nique has stopped serving its chicken tasting menu. It may well still be a good restaurant, but it now serves typical French dishes at a mid-to-high-range price point, and we haven’t tasted anything on the current menu.

I’ll start with the most important point: Pique-Nique does the finest chicken I’ve eaten in London, and by extension, ever. It has a lovely and extremely French atmosphere, it’s very reasonably priced for what it is, and you will leave happy and full. All you really need to know is that you should go.

But since that would make for a fairly boring review, I’ll go into detail on exactly how they get rotisserie chicken so right, transmogrifying it from a solid but unexciting street food or takeaway option into an ambrosial delight.

The warm, crispy, chewy bread

First, it’s the chickens. People probably do spend too much time talking about where food comes from, possibly it’s just something to nerd out about and show off what you know. But Bresse chicken is a resounding blow in favour of caring about provenance.

These chickens live 120 days or so, compared to the supermarket standard 42, or 80-odd for the very highest-end free range chicken, making them the free range of free range. They roam around beautiful rolling hills and are deliberately fed only lightly so they seek out insects to eat. And it comes through. They are unimaginably deeply flavoured and delicious compared to regular chicken—a comparison that perhaps comes close is that the breast tastes, throughout, like normal chicken’s crispy skin. And the skin, well!

Mashed potato, girolles, and breast

Second, I think it’s the preparation. Everything is precise and perfect. Properly juicy chicken, presumably from the steady turning on the spit, but coupled with bone dry crispy skin. Maximally creamy and finely riced mashed potato. Served simply with morels and a creamy sauce. Heavily reduced red wine sauce; warm, crispy, chewy, pully-aparty French bread, a clear but powerfully, er, chicken-y consomme. Fluffy chestnut soufflé. You get the idea.

Chicken consomme

Third, I think it’s the whole approach. Simple, comforting, hearty, delicious. We ate the £41 Bresse chicken tasting menu. You start with a glorious little croquette of shredded chicken with a sweet-sour chutney of some sort, with a cute bone sticking out. Then you get bread with pate—just out of the oven and they keep offering you more until you eventually find a backbone of resistance. If, like me, you abhor liver pate, they just happen to have expertly browned butter in reserve, unmentioned.

Chicken croquettes

Then you get the consomme, which comes with offal on a stick above it. I don’t know if these people are geniuses or if they owe it to their extremely expensive poultry, but the gizzard, heart, and even that wobbly thing on top of the chicken’s head (yes we ate that) were scrumptious, again packed full of savoury depth and punch.

Thigh, drumstick, red wine reduction, and salad

After the consomme you get the aforementioned breast of the chicken. But you’re still going! Soon you are presented with the bouncy, firm thigh and leg and their skin, with a sharply-dressed salad and a shiny and lip-smacking winey jus. I, personally, would confit those chicken legs. I prefer that melt-away soft texture to the more aggressive meaty firmness here, but I’m sure others agree.

Chestnut soufflé

You even get to choose what dessert you’d like. We had an entirely anonymous chocolate fondant, no better or worse than one you’d get anywhere, and a glorious chestnut soufflé, totally changing my mind on whether they are just a way to ostentatiously display cooking skills.

For me, chicken has always been a second-tier meat. I believed it was more of a canvas for flavour than the main flavour itself. Well, Pique-Nique shows my old views for the distilled wrongness I now know them to be.

(Two medals.)

Review: Black Axe Mangal, Islington

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Usually I go to restaurants just the one time before I review them. I don’t think this is unfair. I always share dishes with dining companions, so I’ll usually managed to try a fair swathe of—or even most of—the menu. But I’m glad I went to Black Axe Mangal thrice before writing anything, because it’s gotten better every time, to the point where it’s an easily one of my very favourites and, since I live nearby, there is always a fighting chance I will consider going on a given evening.

Black Axe Mangal doesn’t take bookings, but it doesn’t need them because it’s tiny. It can fit about 16, squashed together, inside, and six or maybe eight outside on little painted metal tables if it’s warm. It has a giant wood-fired stone oven for pizza-esque “flatbreads”, and it always always plays very loud punk or metal. They are good primarily because they craft a glorious, awe-inspiring menu, and everything delivers on its promise, with the punchiest most blow-your-head-off flavour you’ve ever eaten. I promise.

Just look at that. Absolutely everything is something you’ve never tried before and want to try. And by the next time you’re there, even if it’s just a couple of months, it’ll be mostly different, the epitome of what you want in a “neighbourhood restaurant”: somewhere you want to—and can afford to go to—regularly.

Crispy fuckin rabbit was essentially a mutton roll, but with rabbit. It was cooked until tender, then pressed together, breaded, and fried. It came with a chunky red blob of spicy jarred peppers blended up, and a lime. It was perfect.

Fried pigs ears with black lime was basically pork scratchings or rinds but less fatty: just the brittle crispy crunch element. And once again it was powerfully flavoured, with just the right amount of salt (a lot) and the wincy citrusof black (i.e. dried out) lime. In a good way.

Black Axe Mangal like serving things with crisps. On an earlier visit I got ox cheek with them. This time they came with a beef tartare (extremely tender) with bone marrow. If you’re reading this team, next time I want more bone marrow. Its flavour was just a hint, rather than the overpowering beefiness I wanted. But it provided a wonderful fatty lubricant. I don’t know what was on top.

The best dish of the night, and of a previous night, when the same spice coated chicken wings, was the half guinea fowl. I’m telling you: you need to try this mission spice. It’s spicy, numbing, salty, umami, and just… delicious all at once. It’s so full of pep and vigour that your eyes are almost watering. It kind of punches you. I’ve really never had anything like it—apparently they use special sichuan peppers that are much better than the kind that plebs like me buy in Chinatown. But however they do it, they know how to fry poultry till the outside is crisp, yet the inside is juicy, without being fatty or greasy. This is the optimal guinea fowl, I’ll put my name to that.

I’ve eaten a whole lot of other stuff there. Pictured above is a lamb offal flatbread. But I won’t go on about it: the story is the same. Lots of flavour. The correct price. Interesting ideas you haven’t eaten before. If it’s bread: warm and fluffy and right out of the oven. I love this place and I feel rather lucky it’s more or less the closest restaurant to my flat.

Two medals.

Review: Temper City, Bank

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You reviewed us on our soft launch with a 50% discount ? You massive, massive prick. The point of a soft launch is to iron out problems, hence the discount. Please go fuck yourself you unprofessional tosser.

Update: Temper’s owner disagreed with our review, and had the above to say. I stand by the review, and think it’s clear that the price/portion offering is not affected by the fact that it was a soft launch. As I said, if the dishes were significantly larger, or significantly cheaper, I would recommend the place. You can decide for yourself.

My dinner at the original Temper, in Soho, was probably my favourite meal of 2016—and I told founder Neil Rankin as much over the bar as he went about chopping and smoking large bits of goat in the restaurant’s shiny and beautiful central kitchen.

But I was not impressed with its new sister restaurant Temper City, and not for any quirks to do with the fact I went during a soft launch. The staff were friendly and efficient, and if some of them were still working on their knowledge of the menu then who cares, that’s what you expect. The kitchen got everything right, I’m sure, and when they didn’t they told us in advance that they were redoing our dishes. These sorts of growing pains are why they charge you half price and even if they didn’t they would hardly bother me.

No, it was the approach in general that didn’t quite come off. It certainly wasn’t bad, but had I paid full price I would have felt a little bit ripped off.

To begin with, I was surprised they had gone for a curry-based concept. I so confidently assumed that it’d be a rerun of the huge-smoked-pieces-of-quality-meat concept in the Soho original that I didn’t follow any of the news around the opening; I just booked as soon as booking lines were opened, and slavered away happily in anticipation. Actually, the curry-ness of the place can be overstated. There’s still a huge smoker and extractor fan in the middle, and they still offer substantial meat chunks with deep smoky flavours.

It was the price-to-portion ratio that confused me most.

These “crab beignet” puff pastries were delicate, expert, and came with a lovely sweet jam and sour cream, or maybe mayo, but they were £8.50! This is for something with almost no substance and the size of a man’s thumb.

The “Korean haggis”—a mix of coarsely minced or finely chopped duck offal with gochuchang, radishes and chillies, was more substantial, and was delicious and fun to eat wrapped in baby gem as well. But it was £12 for two or three solid mouthfuls! Come on!

The curry plates boasted an array of ingredients, and array they did have, but most of them were pointless. The tomatoes were a bit sad, the potatoes were a bit bland, and while the crunchy sweet nutty salad was lovely, I’m not sure how it combined with the others. The paratha was unbelievably pillowy, but there was barely a handful of (really excellent) goat, and we started with little idea of how to combine the ingredients together in more lettuce wraps, hidden under the mint. Plus it was £17. Is this supposed to be a main that fills you up? I think you’d need two of them, making a meal here an incredible indulgence.

The lamb skewers with kimchi were great, but—I know, I’m a broken record—they were £15. One of them was minced lamb (cheap), and while the other had two substantial cubes of lovely meat, it also had two big pieces of kidney (dirt cheap). Is it really unfeasible to offer a third? I can’t deny the loveliness of the sauce, where kimchi was balanced against a mild mayonnaise or some other creamy base.

We opted for peach, condensed milk, and roti for dessert. It’s a good combo, but I’m not sure they’re quite ready with their roti—these seem like the kind of thing that might get better. It was a bit flat; it didn’t have the bouncy life of a (much cheaper, much bigger) one I had at Roti King just weeks ago.

I hate to criticise Temper because I am a huge huge fan of the approach in so many ways. And I even kinda hope this one does well—maybe prices have to be higher in the City. But I won’t be going along at full price. I’ll be going for Sunday lunch at the original spot. (No medals.)

Review: Craft, North Greenwich

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Up until Craft opened, there was absolutely no prospect of an interestingly good meal by the O2 Arena. I mean, that wasn’t the point of the O2, and it’s not clear to me that anyone really minded—events usually start too early to enjoy a proper restaurant meal anyway, you’re perfectly happy to have something cheap and cheerful.

But Craft opened to much aplomb in mid-2015, with a chef whose name was bandied about as if you were supposed to have independently heard of him (well I have now), and it was widely loved. People especially liked taking videos of themselves bashing open the hard clay coating their whole roasted duck—something I’m not criticising as gimmicks really do make things fun. Sadly it’s off the menu at the moment.

Craft does a pretty good job of creating atmosphere despite the fact it’s a three story glass-edged blob plopped in the middle of an empty, windy, usually-empty plaza—the gap between North Greenwich tube and the arena itself. The room was very expensively bedecked by someone who is apparently famous and world-conquering, but it’s not really to my taste: something about it is janky and forced.

We plumped for the £35 short tasting menu—there’s a £55 option as well—which would really be a good deal if the food hadn’t been disappointing: snacks, endless fantastic bread (chewy flatbread straight out of the oven, competent airy sourdough, and cultured fermented-tasting butter), and three courses proper, all solid portions and high end ingredients.

They do everything, seemingly, in-house, which does impress me. The ham was consistently textured in a way that supermarket stuff never does: it didn’t come apart in sections and you could bite right through. The middle one—whipped roe with caviar—was probably the nicest and most interesting thing we ate: that sea floor graininess you are looking for. I honestly can’t remember the third.

The starter was a cheddar custard with crumbs and veg. It was OK—I think I’m biased because I never want my cheese as custard, I want it as cheese. It was a bit like welsh rarebit.

Both of the mains were severely underseasoned and totally unimpressive. Yes, this hake was cooked well, but without seemingly ever being introduced to any salt it tasted of nothing at all. I cannot believe this is just my tastebuds failing me. What’s more, the accompanying veg (with the exception of burnt hispi cabbage, which literally cannot be bad) was just veg, like if you’d scraped out your fridge leftovers and lightly boiled them simply to make up space in a weeknight dinner.

The beef was worse. It was a decent-sized and well-cooked flat iron steak, and it was tender. That’s what I can say in its favour. But it was also drastically underflavoured,and tasted like the grey beef in a school dinner. I didn’t really know you could make high-end beef taste this mediocre. The broth was like a really weak watered stock cube, with a good deal less in the way of punch. It was lukewarm almost immediately. The less said about the random assorted veg the better.

I didn’t finish my dessert. It was extremely bland and commonplace carrot cake that was literally just the ginger cake you buy for £1 in a supermarket. And it came with sour cream. Sour cream! The ice cream was… ice cream. If it was specially home crafted rare milk ice cream it didn’t show.

My companion doesn’t like hazelnut, and they were kind enough to let her pick a different dessert (in fact, the service was extremely good throughout). It was rhubarb jam on some thin, brittle meringue sheets. I just don’t like this kind of meringue, it seems to dry the mouth out with a pervasive sandy dustiness. So take my opinion with a pinch of salt. The rhubarb jam had all the tangy rhubarb flavour seemingly sucked out of it, and could have done with more sweetness.

I had heard only good things about Craft, and every element seemed to have been thought through: design, sourcing, concept, menu, pricing, even website design. But I would not recommend anyone go. Even if a chef had a day off, that’s the sort of quality control that a restaurant charging at least £100 for dinner for two should not accept. I always thought I could guess if a place would be good based only on cues available before you get to the restaurant—I hope this is the exception that proves the rule.

Rating: Avoid.

Review: Anglo, Perilla & much much more

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The SUL site has been quiet, but that doesn’t mean we’ve not been eating out and updating the map with our favourite spots. Sometimes you just don’t find yourself with a whole review’s worth of things to say about places, or the time to say them. So I’m just going to round up the dozen or so new places I’ve tried in the quiet winter months.

Anglo, Farringdon

I wanted to go to Anglo since it opened. It’s obvious, but there’s something luxurious and special about an endless progression of courses. However, most of the restaurants that are designed around trying lots of different dishes in succession, rather than simultaneously, are prohibitively expensive. I’m very happy for the people who can afford £100 tasting menus, but they do not include me.

Anglo’s £45 price point, on the other hand, is occasionally affordable. And for that price, at Anglo, you are served three little tasters—which seem much more generous and course-like than the snacks served elsewhere—four savouries, three sweets, and bread that’s easily as good as any of the other courses, so let’s count it: eleven different things to eat. That’s a bargain.

Compared to my favourite restaurants at this price point (i.e. The Dairy) I didn’t love everything I was served. A lot of it was interesting rather than comforting. An example is the burnt leek tartlet below, which was a play of textures: a dazzlingly light and airy set of shavings (?) on top and an impressively thin and crisp-yet-soft many-layered pastry base. It was fun to eat, but not delicious, and most of the vegetable dishes followed the same pattern: intriguing, but perhaps not always a success.

By contrast, the meat dishes were universally satisfying, in a savoury umami way. Beef with smoked emulsion and turnip was exactly the sort of steadying dish I needed in the middle of the meal, with its chunk of… beefy native breed steak. I can imagine going back. (One medal.)

Perilla, Stoke Newington

By contrast, all of the combinations at Perilla came off perfectly, and two could probably eat dinner for £100 including drinks and service. It was a succession of ideas you’d never consider yourself, but that seemed to just… work.

Pictured is the red mullet with lardo, a zingy vinegary emulsion, and chopped bits of dressed radicchio. Radicchio is extremely bitter, even to someone who can’t taste PTC like me, but in the dish the whole outweighed the sum of its parts. When combined with the intensely salty and savoury cured fat, the sweet and sharp vinaigrette, and the warming fish flesh, it was a noticeable, but blunted high and clean flavour.

Waiting staff are friendly and helpful, the ambiance is dim and buzzy in the right way, and it’s also in walking distance of my house. Wins all round. (One medal.)

Aster, Victoria

Victoria was pretty much a dead zone for restaurants until the last three months, but in 2017 it’s probably had more good openings than anywhere else. There’s a Bleecker Burger, a Shake Shack, a Franco Manca, and a Bone Daddies is coming, to begin with, but it’s not just chains. There’s Hai Cenato, a new Jason Atherton, there’s The Other Naughty Piglet, there’s Lorne, there are a few giant but fairly unexciting-looking all-day brasserie type places. And there’s Aster, a Nordic-influenced place, which has opened to little aplomb.

Aster is pretty ambitious, doing all the sorts of stuff that, in general, make a place good. And it does it fairly competently—perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s yet another outpost of the imperialistic D&D group. This dish below was an excellent combination of flavours: milk-fed lamb with lingonberry jam and a cabbage leaf surprisingly filled with moist and savoury lamb mince.

But it fell down on some of the details: I was warned that the lamb would be pink, but it was white; the fat was slightly rubbery and insufficiently rendered; and there was none of the browning, caramelisation, and crisping-up I’d want on the outside. But it was still a very nice dish.

The desserts were even busier: I ate blood orange jam & curd, almond cake, rhubarb sorbet, and so many individual nice inputs really does make the dessert more fun. For the price, I wouldn’t go regularly, but it’s by no means or in any way a bad place to go. (No medals.)

Comptoir Gascon, Clerkenwell

Comptoir Gascon has been going a while, compared to most restaurants I go to: its (positive) Jay Rayner review comes from about 2005. To keep afloat all that time, I wagered it must have been decent, and based on what we had I’d say it was just that: decent. Generically competent steaks, an indulgent foie gras burger as a starter, and acceptable puddings. A caveat is that it’s supposedly a duck restaurant, and none of us ate duck—we booked to have steak—so perhaps the duck is really where it stands out. But on the back of the beef, no medals. (No medals.)

Mangal 2, Dalston

Some people will tell you that basically all the Turkish grill restaurants on and around Kingsland Road, in Haggerston, Dalston and Stoke Newington, are good. Others say there are especially good, and less good ones. Mangal 2 is famous because of its bolshy and amusing Twitter account. I’d say the food here was solid, but for me (a neophyte in this cuisine in any case) Umut 2000 just down the road sets the standard.

Everything we had did the job, and there were even some novel dishes, like the below—not a fish, despite the mouth-like slit at the end; in fact chunks of lamb inside a charred aubergine—but it just wasn’t anything special. Yes, pieces of deep fried chicken and grilled lamb are enjoyable, but all I could think about was the juicy, full flavoured, and extremely good value offering at its competitor. (No medals.)

Tandoor Chop House, Covent Garden

Based only on my meal at Tandoor Chop House I’d be a zealous convert. It’s a simple offering: pieces of meat, cooked pink, in Indian spices, with smoky and sweet dips. What more do you want, except tender tandoored cuts of beef and lamb (and chicken, though we didn’t have any)? Well, maybe butter naan, but they do that too. You can even see into the kitchen and into the gigantic pots with skewers poking out of them. However, the experience Chris Pople had when the head chef was on holiday makes me extremely wary of going back. (No medals.)

Umut 2000, Dalston

My favourite ocakbasi as of this point. £30 for the special which is infinite bread, a huge amount of meze, and a pile of meat that is absolutely unfinishable for two people. That’s £30 between you, not £30 each. You get grilled chicken pieces, minced chicken kebab, minced lamb kebab, chicken on the bone, lamb on the bone, and grilled lamb pieces. It’s juicy, meaty, and has that coal barbecued exterior that you’re looking for. Highly recommended. (One medal.)

Lucky Chip, Dalston

I went into Lucky Chip optimistic: no, I hadn’t seen a review from one of the more reliable reviewers, like Burgaffair; no, I don’t think that burger places should offer hot dogs—there’s absolutely no reason to believe they can do both well; and no, I don’t understand why you’d want a ‘burgers and wine’ restaurant (although the beer selection is very good too). In fact, although I did go in optimistic, maybe it was just because I escaped off the horrific Ridley Road market where Lucky Chip is located. In any case, it’s mediocre all round. I could do all of the elements better myself. (Avoid.)

Yamagoya, Soho

Yamagoya is taking up the top floor of Shuang Shuang, the conveyor belt Chinese hotpot place that opened to fairly significant aplomb, but that barely anyone talks about now. They want their own spot, but for the time being they’re a pop-up, serving slightly overpriced but solid ramen. Something I’d never had before was the chicken chashu, which is like pork chashu, except drier and blander (without actually reaching dryness and blandness). (One medal.)

Tacos El Pastor, London Bridge

I’m going to go back to Tacos El Pastor before I make any rating “official” but on the strength of the quick lunch I had there I do actually want to go back. Everything has that pickled onion and lime balance between sweetness and sour acidity, but somehow coming in a hundred different ways from different fruits and salsas and meat rubs. And of course theres a lot of juicy, tender, and smoky slow-cooked meat. It’s hard not to like.

You know how Jay Rayner does those little bullet points at the bottom of his pieces? Well I’m going to copy him here with some (even) shorter comments on other places I’ve eaten recently.

  • Casse-Croûte, Bermondsey I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t love Casse-Croûte. It’s basically like teleporting to France. It’s buzzing, full of kids staying up well past a British bed time, and it sells only rustic regional French food like whole cheeses baked in pastry and cassoulet with confit duck and bits of slow cooked pork belly with the bone still in. It even has champagne and cremant on tap! I went back recently and had an even better meal than my first visit.
  • Florentine, South Lambeth Florentine is a new opening that I was tempted to for brunch (I don’t see the point of brunch & this was my first ever in London) by a 50% off offer. It seems decently ambitious and competent, with space for near-infinite covers, hundreds of staff and different kitchen items, and a location (right by South Lambeth tube) that presents little in the way of restaurant competition. But all I did was eat a gigantic four person breakfast including an entire ostrich egg (24 hen eggs worth of egg), but between two.
  • Som Saa, Spitalfields I first went to Som Saa when it was a pop-up at Climpson’s Arch nearly three years ago, but never managed to make it to the real restaurant in Spitalfields. But Sam kept bugging me and bugging me and bugging me, going back again and again and telling me it was the best restaurant in town, and eventually I made it. They really do produce food as good as the best places I visited in Bangkok recently.
  • Picture, Fitzrovia I’ve now been to the Fitzrovia branch of Picture three times! This time was me seeking after another deal: it was half off due to the tube strike; some diners had had to cancel. Picture is less experimental than say, Anglo, but I think this works to its credit: every or nearly every dish is something to enjoy on a simple, happy level. I’d go back a fourth time, but perhaps I’ll try their Marylebone branch out first.
  • A Wong, Pimlico I have something of an obsession with A Wong, and I do think it will earn three medals soon, when I finally go and get its Peking Duck special menu. Indeed, it may well be my favourite restaurant, and is certainly in my top ten. I’ve been for the regular food, I’ve been for the cheap lunch/early dinner menu with work, and now I’ve been for the dim sum, only available at lunch. They really are amazingly special and expertly prepared, especially the duck egg yolk custard dessert dumpling, which is the best pudding I’ve had in a year.
  • Ramen Sasuke, St. James Sasuke’s other joint in Soho is on our map because I’ve been there three or four times and had lovely tonkotsu without even bothering to try their soy or fish-based ramens. Their meat is always a bit fatty, but it’s a nice contrast to the other options out there. But the dish I had at the newer Panton Street one, next to the mighty Kanada-Ya, would push me to a strong avoid. Oily thin broth, packet-seeming noodles; just rubbish stuff. I didn’t finish it.
  • Bleecker Street, Victoria Bleecker is my favourite burger spot, and since they’ve opened a location right by Victoria station, near my work, I have eaten there at least five times. £10 may seem a lot of money for a burger (their signature Bleecker Black—you can get a cheaper burger for £6 if you like) because it is a lot of money for a burger. But it’s worth every penny: medium rare patties, unbelievably juicy and tender because they are 50% fat; soft crumbly Irish black pudding; American cheese; consistent sesame bun that can take the Grease punishment without falling apart. It’s all there. Among the best food in the world.
  • Flat Iron, Shoreditch I’d been to the Soho and Covent Garden Flat Irons many times, and the Shoreditch one does not depart from the basic formula: £10 for a flat iron steak, cooked a limited number of ways, £3.50 for (glorious) beef dripping chips, free side salad, cheap cocktails. If you want it to be, then Flat Iron is a cheap—nay, excellent value—steak house. But if you want it to be, it’s also a city-beating high end steakhouse: we ordered from the specials menu and boy oh boy the wagyu bavette we eat was surely the nicest steak I’ve ever had. Indeed, even though we’d over-ordered to begin with, we immediately ordered a second one when we finished.

Review: Temper, Kiln, and Smokestak

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There are tens of thousands of restaurants in London. Even if you spend an outsized fraction of your disposable income on eating out—as I do—it’s impossible to keep up with more than a sliver of the ones you want to go to most.

I have four or five lists on my phone of the places I want to visit most. And when I discover somewhere particularly good (as Kiln, Smokestak, and Temper all are) I want to go back—not just because it’s a good meal and eating out is a great pleasure, but also because I haven’t tried everything on the menu yet. How can I have reliable opinion if there’s something they cook I have yet to eat.

A huge number of widely-hyped restaurants opened in 2016. I have yet to visit Perilla, Ellory, either iteration of Bao, the new (or any) Barrafina, The Laughing Heart, Padella, Som Saa’s permanent location, Sardine, The Frog, Anglo, The Woodford, or Frenchie, let alone dozens of other, less exciting, but still interesting openings. By next year, I’ll be even further behind.

But I did manage to get to three of those I most wanted to visit, and hopefully you are less obsessively completist than me, and you can simply enjoy these lovely places without worrying you’re missing out on the others.

Kiln, Soho

I was super excited about Kiln. I don’t know what it was that made it so obvious it was going to be great. It’s from people behind the Smoking Goat, which I love, but it wasn’t just that. I was so excited I queued up to go on their first night, when they were offering a free set menu.

Everything was excellent—we started with lamb skewers that were actually better than those at the almighty Silk Road in Camberwell—and it maintained that standard. The fat is jammed together with incredibly tender pieces of protein, grilled above charcoal, and rubbed with cumin and chilli powder. And you pay £2.90 for two of them.

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I don’t quite understand how they achieve such reasonable prices (dishes that are basically small mains go in the range £6 to £8, unless they’re using some expensive seafood ingredient). Perhaps it’s the fact there are only a few tables (reservable for parties of 4+) and most everyone else sits at the bar.

They operate a queueing system where you don’t actually have to be there: put your name down and they give you a link to an online counter, showing you how far you are from the front. We went off to have a drink somewhere else in the two hours we had to kill.

Even more challenging dishes work well. River fish is in a gritty, intensely-flavoured broth that somehow tastes like the soily edge of a riverbed… in a good way. You think that the pork belly and brown crab rice noodles—warmly savoury—are good as they are but they come with a sweet and refreshing green sauce (whose provenance I can’t divine) that’s so good you just have to lick its serving bowl clean.

Everything is fantastic. The place is buzzing. Staff are effective and not overbearing. The menu is a delight, changing regularly. Did I say that the pricing is rather competitive. Go asap. (Two medals.)

Temper, Soho

Apparently, everyone else has and had heard of Neil Rankin, the man behind Temper, but I had not. So I did not realise that I was chatting with the proprietor—wearing a red trucker hat—when I ate at Temper. Either way, I’m glad I told him that his eatery was my favourite opening of the year, because it is. It ticks every box that I’ve asked for in a restaurant.

Meat is sold by the 100g, and they tell you the (rare) breed. They put MSG in their ketchup. You can sprinkle bits of fried and ground up pork scratching on your food. They grill large slabs of flesh over basically open fires, in an open kitchen right in the middle of the room. They use animal fats in their vegetable dishes. Their menu fits (easily) on one page. They even base their cocktails around mezcal.

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The theme is flatbreads and meat. Basically you buy (smoked, medium rare, tender, extremely meaty) bits of meat, then add sauces and “sprinkles”, sort-of wrap them up, and eat. This, alone, would be enough. But there are also sides—beef fat potatoes utterly covered in raclette cheese was one of the highlights—and in keeping with the theme, starter tacos which range even further (e.g. blowtorched mackerel).

Eating dinner in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure, but sometimes it’s a glorious all-out reminder of why life is good. My meal at Temper was one of those. (Two medals.)

Smokestak, Shoreditch

Smokestak is an opening in the same vein as Kiln and Temper: long pedigree of previous ventures (in this case, years running a street food stall); widely hyped by the London food crowd; and in possession of a sort-of gimmick. In Smokestak’s case it’s the gigantic, gleaming, smoker in the middle of the room.

I think others have said that Smokestak is London barbecue food coming of age, and I agree. I remember a time when I’d never heard of pulled pork—when I was eighteen and I stumbled into a colonial canteen in the middle of nowhere in Virginia—and totally bowled over by the food. Now, it’s ubiquitous and usually shit. But you can get excellent barbecue in Shotgun, Pitt Cue, and many non-specialist restaurants have smokers and know how to use them.

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Smokestak possibly doesn’t do the best brisket in London (although it comes very close, and will serve you a reasonable portion for £8) but it is a very solid all round addition to the scene. Sweet sticky smoky bbq pig tails were crunchy goodness, but my absolute favourite dish was smoked girolles on beef dripping toast. It came in a jus whose deep powerful flavour must have come from litres of stock, reduced to almost nothing. I will go back. (One medal.)

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